Last week, I participated in a conversation as part of the “undisciplinary” #(HASHTAG) series organized by the mighty team of Emilie Cameron, Danielle Dinovelli-Lang, Stacy Douglas, and Ummni Khan. These have been some of my favorite events at Carleton since they started a couple of years ago, since they always bring together an interesting set of speakers with short provocations, across disciplinary lines, and a really nice mix of grad and undergrad students and faculty of all sorts. It was a total delight to talk with Aubrey Anable, who does wonderful work on affect and video games, and Edana Cassol, who is an actual scientist and who was very kind around my untutored enthusing about things.
This is more or less what I said:
Since they’ve been understood as anything, viruses have mostly been seen as a hostile force, one that targets humans (or at least one that kills us along the way towards propagating themselves). Virus as a term comes from the Latin meaning a “poison, venom, or slimy fluid,” as Dorothy Crawford puts it in Viruses: A Very Short Introduction (3); immunologist Peter Medawar characterized them as “a piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein” (4). They’re a beautiful example of the co-production and problem closure of our measuring instruments and how we define the world around us (before the re-evaluation of giant viruses quite recently, our definition of them as small was based on the ceramic filter used in 1903 to take out things the size of known bacteria).
Viruses figure the threats of interpenetration between human and non-human animal realms (as in the various viruses transmitted among cattle, bats, swine, birds, and primates from H*N* viruses, to HIV, to older viruses like measles that seem to’ve been transmitted to humans from animal others 2,000 years ago). They signal the dangers of interconnection that deepen in relation to global warming, when viruses that used to be contained by weather or travel restrictions spread (I’m thinking of Blue Tongue Disease, carried by ticks that used to be killed off in the winter but that now flourish, which affects ruminants, or Zika and dengue, carried by mosquitoes that likewise flourish in the warming world and that affect lots of mammals but that humans care about because of the fear of and hatred for disability, which I’ll talk about in a sec.)
So it’s salutary to see the upswing of counternarratives from people like Eula Biss, Carl Zimmer, and Ed Yong, who examine the ways that we benefit from our entanglement with viruses of all sorts even as they can hurt and kill us sometimes (the prime example is how in many mammals, humans included, pregnancy is reliant on the a gene we’ve taken up from a virus, syncytin, which allows a fetus to draw nutrients through the placenta). Sociality! People who study viruses are learning exciting things about how viruses can help defend against viruses, how bacteria from black widow spiders could cut the spread of the Zika virus without a return to using insecticides to kill mosquitoes, and how many viruses in our gut may help shield us from bacterial infections through their useful mucosal production. There are lots of viruses that turn out to be incredibly common but that we’ve only recently discovered. I’m something like obsessed with the microbiome, and especially with the ways that the microbiome only exists in concert with an enormously complex macrobiome – the critters, ecosystem, and world we live among, within, and contain. Viruses are part of this in a huge and not at all fully understood way.
Then I’m interested in the transition between something being a virus, in all these different ways, and something being viral. A virus is of course always a co-production, a kind of sociality between an entity that only activates in concert with cells that have things it doesn’t; it is instructions for propagating itself without internal capacity to grow or reproduce. But we can think of the “virus” as a biological entity, measurable, predictable, acting and acted upon, even as it’s entangled and reliant. Our topic today invites thinking about the natureculture of #viral as something always social, as a biological becoming that spreads through commonality and that can’t be thought about without understanding the social world that makes it a phenomenon. I come back again and again to two examples of the social making of a virus as it becomes viral, both of which show some contestations over the space between medicine and society: HIV and Zika.
Ada Jaarsma gifted me this summer with the wonderful book Proxies, by poet Brian Blatchfield. He renders a familiar trope about coming out as gay after AIDS:
But in 1988, if you privately understood you were gay and were capable of basic logical continuity, you had made the further implicit equation between your own attraction to men and the depthless suffering of AIDS victims stranded in their crisis on the nightly news – and not just their appreciable agony but also their leprous toxicity. Regularly, reports stressed their reckless, even willful communication of the virus to others. Sex between men that resulted in infection was in certain instances prosecuted as murder and manslaughter, and men were maximally sentenced for aggravated assault who spat on HIV-negative cops. For so much lethality the American imagination needed monsters to blame and to fear; likewise, to justify the paternalistic hard lines that might be drawn to keep its children safe. The corruption of the young innocent was to be avenged – until the moment he seroconverted, whereupon he too was hastened into villainy. Many of the men sick in San Francisco and New York were dying disowned by their families of origin. Programmatic mass quarantine was debated and camps – camps – were publicly contemplated. (Proxies, 113)
People responded to this political context in many ways, but often people who narrate the past of HIV and AIDS activism broadly group the responses into an approach focusing on HIV as primarily a medical problem and those focusing on it as primarily a social problem. Both approaches are ways to confront stigma, vilification, and moralizing, but they are different. This line is sometimes presented as what caused ACT UP chapters in various cities to split – if you think treatment access and developing more and better drugs is the most important thing you take different political actions than if you think poverty, racism, and queer-hating are the most important things to work on. What makes a virus viral, what makes it sicken or kill lots and lots of people who should not have died? My conversations with people who engaged AIDS activism in the early days of the epidemic has taught me that the only way to answer that question is to hold the medical and the social together as most important.
Consider Zika – a currently unfolding naturecultural crisis. It bears the marks of previous social panics (like Ebola or HIV) about a viral situation: transmitted by some bodily fluid, but no one clarifies which one or how easy transmission is through which route, socially coded along race-nationality axes, stigmatized, and without explanation killing more people who live in poverty. Now, there are things that can be known about all sorts of viruses and their methods of transmission. A piece of something becoming viral, though, might be that the virus gets tangled up with a social context. In the case of Zika, the main context is the belief that disability is worse than death; the threat the virus brings is microencephalitis, or a small skull, in babies born to people who have Zika while pregnant. So Zika as entangles a conception of reproductive futurity – putative concern for the child – with holding pregnant people personally responsible for the entire world that might affect their developing fetus, with the actual paucity and in some places illegality of contraception and abortion. This is a reproductive justice issue, for sure, but not one that stops at the supposed conflict between disability rights and reproductive rights. For sure, to say that all babies born with microencephalitis should have been aborted is to advocate a eugenic logic entangled with dense histories of colonialism: it’s a bad futurity. But it is also to ignore the fact that something like 30% of such babies live ordinary lives, go to school, get jobs, and generally have the same life chances as people with bigger heads. Importantly, they only have those manifestations and chances if their parents have social supports for that development, which is to say, if their parents are rich.
The more important question is how and whether people can live now. Are we crafting worlds in which entanglement and penetration across cell lines is livable, or a site for death? Who has access to those worlds? These questions animate the viral for me.